It was a huge relief to see a sober Richie Finestra taking care of business this week. After devolving into a sentient puddle of coke sweat in the last episode, driving his long-suffering wife out the door and alienating his closest business partner. His behavior was so repellent that it was hard to see a way to keep watching the show without seeing him as a villain. I even speculated that that might be the direction the show was planning: to position Richie as a villain, and Zak and Andi as his good-hearted, competent foils.
So starting this week’s episode with Richie reading a self-help book (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature), disposing of the liquor in his office, and engaging honestly with the business was a welcome development, and pulled the character back from the brink of becoming totally unsympathetic. Indeed, he was so generous and patient and thoughtful throughout the episode that it was almost too much.
Tightening American Century’s belt in the wake of the scuttled PolyGram sale and the loss of a top artist, Richie and Zak take the company jet to California to sell it to rival label head Lou Meshejian (ex-Sopranos chef John Ventimiglia, smarmy as ever), gradually mending fences on the plane and taking an invitation to the label head’s party, where they rub elbows with the likes of Mama Cass Elliott, Gram Parsons, and Stephen Stills, who Richie tries to poach immediately after snorting with derision about Mashejian’s reliance on older acts. The irony is magnified when Zak overhears that Elvis Presley is considering leaving RCA, and he and Richie head immediately for Las Vegas to try and win him over to American Century.
Meeting Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, on the casino floor, Zak is once again unable to stop himself from geeking out, as he did with David Bowie last week, but the pair is gruffly invited to Elvis’ suite after the show. After meeting a couple of party girls by the pool, the foursome attends the first half of the show, but Zak is so disgusted by Elvis’ new material (no “Hound Dog” or “Heartbreak Hotel”) that they depart for the casino, where a lucid Richie runs up some blackjack winnings that he’s smart enough to stash in the safe, cautioning an incredulous Zak, “There’s luck, and there’s pushing your luck.”
Things get interesting when Richie maneuvers Zak into his first coveted, longed-for three-way, and creeps up to Elvis’ suite, where he finds the King alone and unguarded.
We’ve seen a lot of “cameos” by established rock legends on this show: Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Robert Plant, to name a few, and some have been better than others. But I have to say, the biggest, the longest, and arguably the most difficult to get right – Elvis Presley – is the one Vinyl nails the hardest so far. Actor Shawn Klush, who doesn’t bear any particular resemblance to Presley, nonetheless has his body language, speech pattern, and mannerisms down pat, not to mention the exact period detail of his haircut, sideburns, and costuming.
Catching Elvis free from the Colonel’s watchful eye, Richie tries to sell him on reuniting with his original band from the Sun Records era, and Presley is excited by the possibilities, telling Richie “you get it,” and agreeing in principle to leave RCA for American Century. But then the Colonel returns, Elvis gets sheepish, and in a matter of moments all bets are off.
All through these first seven episodes, Vinyl has been showing us characters struggling through various addictions. But this episode suggests that the most destructive monkey on Richie’s back isn’t booze, or coke, or even rock and roll – it’s the past. Notice how, for all his talk about finding the next big thing, and how the prime directive of ACR going forward is simply “NEW,” anytime Richie’s picking the music it’s Buddy Holly or Howlin’ Wolf or the Beach Boys. And after all his snarking about Stephen Stills and Mama Cass being old acts – only a few years after they had their biggest hits – Richie is on his hands and knees begging the obviously exhausted, dispirited, dead-eyed Elvis Presley to join his “New” label.
And just in case you were worried that Richie was going to outgrow his Brooding Cable Antihero status in the space of one episode, it turns out that it wasn’t the girls that robbed Richie’s blackjack winnings after the three-way – it was Richie, who just couldn’t help but push his luck, losing it all on 18 at the roulette table. It wins him Zak’s forgiveness for all his recent transgressions, because he allows Zak to think the “robbery” was Zak’s fault, and that Richie forgave it with a magnanimous “Everybody f—s up.” But Zak’s earlier comment on the ACR private jet – “I’d trust my wife naked in bed with Burt Reynolds before I’d trust you with a hundred grand cash” – has to be ringing in his ears as he orders a double vodka on the (coach) flight back to New York, even more cash-poor than before and still without a marquee artist. It’s good that he’s off the blow and it would be better if he could kick the booze, but it would be best if he could shake his attachment to the past.
-Jim Morrison had his last three-way on the American Century jet. As far as Richie knows.
-Looks like Richie’s early-career Mob ties are going to be coming back to haunt him.
-Moaning about his demotion to the mail room, Clark goes to Jamie for advice: “Pay attention to what people say, or what they don’t.” Pretty good advice for anyone.
-It’s kind of amazing that Zak closed a three-way with a Fred Sanford impression.
The Beach Boys – “Surf City”
Kool and the Gang – “Funky Stuff”
Albert Hammond – “It Never Rains In Southern California”
Dr. John – “Big Chief”
Joni Mitchell – “Help Me”
Jackson Browne – “Doctor My Eyes”
MC5 – “Do It”
James Gang – “Funk 49”
Tom Jones – “It’s Not Unusual”
Steely Dan – “Do It Again”
Elvis Presley – “Polk Salad Annie”
The Isley Brothers – “That Lady”
Bobby Darin – “Eighteen Yellow Roses”
Focus – “Hocus Pocus”